10 Top Quick Tips To Put Some Holy Into Your Family’s Rosh Hashanah

Are you struggling to find a sense of balance and meaning this Rosh Hashanah? Do the Holy Days feel less holy in this time of pandemic distance and confusion? You are not alone.

It’s hard to imagine how to capture the sense of family, community, inspiration and spirituality as we struggle to bring joy and serenity into a world of uncertainty and a “new normal” of “social distancing” that is antithetical to our sense of Judaism. Rabbis and cantors rush to master technology to bring us together, families struggle with the disruption of structure to protect vulnerable members. To state the obvious, this year is simply not the same. How can we find a meaningful, inspiring, joyful connection while perched in front of our laptops?

“Different” feels disruptive; and yet, “different” opens a window for an opportunity, forcing us to re-envision the holidays and seek a portal to reach past rote rituals for depth. For each of us, the result will look unique; and the secret to success in reaching for the portal lies in the preparation. Two days left to think, be creative, and set intentions! 

Here are 10 tips to consider in sculpting your holiday out of the messy clay of 2020, to create a day that is rich and meaningful for yourself and your family. Some ideas may resonate with you, others may fall flat. Make yourself a unique menu from the ones that resonate, and let the others go.

  1. FOOD: Of course, food. If I have to explain this one to you, then you are likely not Jewish. What foods are most important to you? What foods speak of creating the holiday? Even if your celebration has reduced the need to create a huge spread (and that can be freeing as well for the overworked moms and dads who cook), conscious choices can help you distill the most essential items for you and your family. For me, that is the matzo ball soup and the apples and honey, and perhaps the challah, while my partner really feels the gefilte fish is essential; so we will have both. To paraphrase Hillel, “the rest is commentary.”
  2. WARDROBE COUNTS! Plan now; what will you wear? In my family, each kid bought a new item of clothing for Rosh Hashanah; it was an anticipated part of our ritual, replacing the familiar hand-me-downs. I will buy myself a new blouse this year. Others may wear a simple white kittel symbolizing purity. In the time of Zoom, many wear a nice top and pajama pants – no one will see you (except you, your family, and perhaps the Almighty.) Think about what clothing means to you in the time of a pandemic, when you may not have worn anything fancier than sweatpants and t-shirts for months. Decide if it matters to you to “dress to impress,” or to buy a new dress or shirt, to help capture that sense of “holiday” for you.
  3. SCHMOOZING: The Jewish social currency. Schmoozing is an essential part of our community experience, and I personally give you permission to prioritize that and schedule it if you want; yes, even during the services. In “normal years,” how many of us count on “running into” someone we don’t normally hang out with and spend time in the hallway, in the restroom, or outside catching up? If there is someone that you normally look forward to seeing, set up some “ZOOM schmooze” or phone time with them. (I won’t tell the Rabbi if you don’t, if you set it up during services. This is your day).
  4. EDIT: Edit the contents of your day, your time in services, your time inside or outside, with family or alone, as you need to. You can choose. No one in the community is watching you or keeping track. Let go of shame and do what’s right for you! As many Orthodox communities,uncomfortable with using electronics on Yom Tov, are gathering in synagogues, but choosing to “pare down” the number of prayers they will be reciting to the “most essential.”  They are wisely editing in an effort to balance the mitzvah of gathering with the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of health and human life. You can do the same. Edit it. Do enough and no more. Pare down to the essential. Give yourself permission.
  5. USE YOUR SENSES: Smell things! Touch them! Hear things!  Spend some time paying attention, using all five senses in the next few days. What feeds your sense of spirituality, of Judaism? The feel of the fringes on a Tallit? The smell of foods, or of the changing leaves? The sight of the sunset over a lake or field near you? The sounds of birds, or the sound of a beloved song, prayer, or niggun? Pay attention to yourself in the next few days and simply NOTICE what senses feed your soul. Find a way to bring that knowledge into your Days of Awe.
  6. FIND YOUR THEME: Choose, distill, and simplify a simple, central theme that is most meaningful to you this year. Decide on one theme, a word or an image, a concept that speaks to you and makes you feel connected. We often wait for services to let one prayer grab us and define our focus. This year, try to seek it ahead of time. My words this year are “edit” and “repair.” I pay close attention to the “hints” dropped on me in the month of Elul…the hints came in the form of broken pottery (thanks to a clumsy cat) awaiting my time attention and superglue, and. suggestions to become a better editor in both my personal and professional writing. So this High Holy Day season, I will meditate on the words “edit” and “repair,” diving into what they mean to me in a broad sense. I hope to act on them before Yom Kippur.
  7. CREATE A ZOOM INVITATION FOR GOD: How else will God find YOU, if you’re not in synagogue for Her to drop in and sit there at the usual preappointed time? Perhaps the Almighty is just as flummoxed by this time of disruption and distance as we are. In “God’s Search for Man,” Rabbi Heschel writes about prayer as a reciprocal search, God reaching out for us. Perhaps setting up an appointment with God that you agree to meet – online or otherwise – will help you focus on being present just for that brief time.  Think about involving your kids with this one, just as you might set up a Zoom time for them to talk with Grandma or other family.  It could be a short Zoom call – but it’s a promise to show up at that time. It sets an intention and an invitation.
  8. Create the SPACE you need for holiness. If, like me, you attended a Jewish summer camp, perhaps you found your greatest connection to God occurred in nature. The freedom of this virtual time means we could take a cell phone out on a nature walk, attending the services of your choice while sitting under a tree. You can clear the home desk or table you use for a laptop of its normal clutter and create your own “bimah,” by using a colorful tablecloth, a still life of fresh fruit and flowers, or simply a blank and uncluttered space. Use your imagination and create an intentional space to help spur your emotional energies into presence.
  9. “TALK AMONGST YOURSELVES!” If you are living with family, with kids or partners or other adults, these tips are fodder for dinner conversation. What is meaningful to you, your kids, your spouse? As our prayer Ashrei reminds us, “God is near to all who call out in truth.” Can you let go of assumptions that your family should all adhere to the same truth? Is it OK for you to dress up and let your husband wear a t-shirt during Zoom services? Can one of you watch services on a laptop, while the kids wander in and out of a service streaming in the family room? Allowing each member to create and voice their own sense of holiday can strengthen your family more than forcing a squirming kid to sit silently beside you through that boring portion of services, or that long sermon. And finally…
  10. BREATHE. BREATHE. BREATHE. Remember the word ruach, spirit, is interchangeable with breath. The sound of the Shofar depends on a deep breath. This year of turmoil defines a potent metaphor of breathing, as COVID creates difficulty with breathing, as George Floyd’s last words were, “I can’t breathe,” and as wildfires in the western US create dense, choking smoke. Job reminds us that It is God “in whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind”. Intersperse deep mindful, grateful breaths throughout the day, Cultivate gratitude for the gift of breath. Let your breathing inspire both your body and spirit.

L’shanah tovah.